“No, I haven’t read that yet, but it’s on my shelf.”
July 11, 2015 3:50 PM   Subscribe

Paper Chasing by Jake Bittle On the subject of why we collect books as opposed to simply read them.
“Delight in book collecting, and in showing off one’s book collection, is common, if not universal, among readers and would-be-readers. The biggest reason we spend money on books is because we want to read them (eventually), but that isn’t the only reason: we also like to look at them, and to look at other people looking at them. While moving into my new apartment this month I found myself casting long, admiring glances at my full bookshelves, straightening out folded pages and making sure the spines were perfectly lined up. I have devoted most of my moving time to arranging these shelves; books accounted for probably 90 percent of the weight I had to lift up three flights of stairs into my apartment. When I move out in two years, I will have to do it all again. Why do I—why do we—devote so much time, energy, space and money to these $15 hunks of paper? Why do I risk compressed discs every time I move into a new apartment? Or, to put it another way: Why don’t I just buy a Kindle?”
posted by Fizz (128 comments total) 38 users marked this as a favorite
There is a special place in hell for Bittle's friend Jason, who steals books from libraries.
posted by librosegretti at 3:57 PM on July 11, 2015 [32 favorites]

This is the first acknowledgement I think I've ever come across that book-buying is a form of materialism.

People who Have Too Many Books and Cannot Pass A Bookstore are not considered greedy in the same way as people who Have Too Many [X] and Cannot Pass A [X]store. It's looked upon as virtuous, people boast about it without hesitation, and even in the church I attend which lays particular emphasis on living simply (rofl! As if anyone in London who isn't extremely rich had any possibility of living any other way!) bleat about the thousands of dollars they were quoted for books alone for their transatlantic move; or talk about how their budget software said they were buying too many books so they uninstalled the software and are now much happier.

And yet, I don't know when anyone would have the time to read a physical book because I know I don't - I don't physically get the opportunity to hold one for any length of time. so, why do I have so many books?
posted by tel3path at 4:18 PM on July 11, 2015 [20 favorites]

Oy, for real, yes! Jason gets all my disdain.

I liked this piece. It dabbled in many of the ponderances I've made while sitting in the glow of my life-threatening book collection. (Yes, the compact OED is on TOP of the bookcase next to my bed and WILL kill me in the next big nighttime earthquake in SoCal because that is the only non-doorstop place in my pad where it will fit.) Libraries are great, especially ones that can dedicate enough resources so that Important and Valuable books that come its way can be stored and displayed for everyone to see. Capital-I Important books that get discarded or passed-on by Public Libraries wind up out of the public's eye, gathering dust in tiny apartments where only the obsessed, sad, little man can page through them (very occasionally) and marvel at their bound wonders.

E-book readers and the like have a place. In my experience, that's on the bedside table of readers for sport like my mother, who have already burned through the paperback mystery section at the LPL and require more, More, MORE EVANOVICH! Or for people who need large print everything. But a Kindle just doesn't have the same look, feel, or even smell of the several-eighty Modern Library editions moldering on the bottom shelves of my cases.

And yeah, folks looking at my shelves, taking some time to really root around in them, discerning my (non-existent) ordering scheme and picking something out that I've already picked? Very satisfying. And yeah, you can totally borrow that. ....But no, actually, on second thought you can't borrow the first edition Go Down, Moses. Put that down.
posted by carsonb at 4:19 PM on July 11, 2015 [5 favorites]

Hrm...no. I buy books when & if I genuinely plan to read them, and I'm embarrassed when someone sees one on my shelf and asks about it and I say I haven't read it yet.
posted by scaryblackdeath at 4:22 PM on July 11, 2015 [19 favorites]

For me the physical book serves as a kind of token representing its content. When I scan my bookshelf each spine reminds me in a visceral fashion of my original reaction to the content behind it. This is a very primitive hard-wired thing for humans. While our humanity makes it possible for us to appreciate the abstract words within in a way other animals can't, we still key on the physical object as a link to those memories and feelings, or if we haven't read the book the very idea of a story whose importance we may only know secondhand. Words have to be processed by our highest functions to mean anything, but a physical book is something the brain stem understands.
posted by Bringer Tom at 4:23 PM on July 11, 2015 [23 favorites]

Don't get me wrong, it's utterly mortifying when I have to admit to only having read one case's worth of the several bookcases I have crammed with books. But I figure it shows ambition, right?

(Plus, if I'm coming totally clean with you here, my friends, I didn't pay for very many of these because I know my limits and they describe a path laid well away from any real bookstores. Donations, estate rummages, and library dumpsters for me.)
posted by carsonb at 4:24 PM on July 11, 2015 [4 favorites]

On the surface of it: organizing and reorganizing is the most harmless way to keep an biblio-obsessive person occupied. Costs no much and damn! the fun we :::cough::::: they can have. But I digress.

Total sympathy for anyone who collects books, doesn't read every. last. one. from cover to cover, and has friends who feel they must ask, "why do you bother?"

My cookbook collection (ca. 1670s-21st century) and I will be just fine without your bibliojudgmentalism. Now if you'll excuse me, I'm going to go organize my books from 64mo to elephant folio.
posted by datawrangler at 4:25 PM on July 11, 2015 [4 favorites]

I'm a believer in both read and unread books having the right content for me at the right moment, and sometimes I go looking for a read that will speak to my current condition. The spines of the books--the heft of the books--are there to provide a visual reminder that they are present and waiting, and in a way that is wholly different from electronic files on an easily overlooked (or temporarily missing, or busy charging) device. For me, e-books become invisible and the potential connection is lost.
posted by MonkeyToes at 4:26 PM on July 11, 2015 [6 favorites]

Heh, I got rid of all my physical books. Love the Kindle Paperwhite so much. It's just a much more pleasurable and enjoyable reading experience for my purposes. It's light, it's lit, it's organized, it's easy to hold in any posture, it comes with a built in dictionary and a built in book store. I think it's better in just about every way unless you have attachment to the physical form of books. I mostly find the physical form a huge inconvenience. Weird how divisive this can sometimes be.
posted by Drinky Die at 4:29 PM on July 11, 2015 [22 favorites]

...my bookshelves double as reference library for the things I work on/ am interested in and it's easier then looking them up online and a lot of them aren't available online?
posted by The Whelk at 4:30 PM on July 11, 2015 [6 favorites]

Hrm...no. I buy books when & if I genuinely plan to read them, and I'm embarrassed when someone sees one on my shelf and asks about it and I say I haven't read it yet.

Oliver Burkeman, What unread books can teach us.
posted by MonkeyToes at 4:30 PM on July 11, 2015 [4 favorites]

My bookshelf is overwhelmingly non-fiction. I also live in an area where the local library isn't exactly hot. I read my books when I can, and reference them when I cannot. Many of them are not, and will not be until they go out of copyright, available digitally. I don't really question why I have shelves full of books, and I don't mind I haven't read them all fore to aft.

Now if you'll excuse me, I'm going to go organize my books from 64mo to elephant folio.

You are Samuel Pepys and I claim my prize.
posted by Thing at 4:32 PM on July 11, 2015 [7 favorites]

The only DTB (dead tree book)s I purchase are usually special edition hardcovers. And lately, they tend to be books I already own that have been given some kind of special anniversary treatment. Most of my day to day reading is now done digitally on a tablet or eReader of some kind. It's easy to read this way as the cloud is with me wherever I go.

Despite this, I still find myself spending money at a book store whenever I'm in the area of one. Small poetry books are my personal vice. I try to tell myself that I do not have some kind of sickness of the brain when I purchase a special edition book, take it home, place it on a shelf, and never touch it again. I try to convince myself that its not crazy to have just purchased a physical book, only to find a digital version for my reading, while the physical sits on my shelf as a kind of art object/museum piece.

posted by Fizz at 4:37 PM on July 11, 2015 [2 favorites]

I love my Kindle, but physical books are so much more. They are benchmarks in our lives...for entertainment, for enlightenment, for our relationship with our culture. I use mine as references, as old friends, as prompts for memories, and yes, as signifiers for guests who enter the spaces where i keep my books.
As attached to them as I am, I tend to lend them freely. I re-arrange them periodically, sometimes just to look at them, sometimes to rotate the shelved ones with the boxed ones, sometimes to finally unburden myself of the 'never to be read', which are far different from the 'as yet to be read'.
I am building a tiny free library to take to my office this summer as well.
posted by OHenryPacey at 4:39 PM on July 11, 2015 [1 favorite]

Bittle is so wrong, on so many counts, that he almost manages to make "booklover" a cuss word.

He ADMIRES his friend for his collection of beautiful, stolen-from-the-library books?!? Don't worry about the people who paid taxes to place those books on the library shelves, or the foolish souls who --- the horror! --- might want to actually READ them: Bittle's friend the thief wants to display them in his home, so everything is peachy-keen.

And he seems to have a low opinion of people who acquire books solely because we (gasp!) want to read them: admiring their appearance is very much secondary to admiring their contents. Real readers acquire books, read them, THEN shelve 'em. (I find the bit about how "real" readers don't like ereaders to be especially egregious: I've got something like 1,500 titles on my own Kindle; it's easy to read, it's very portable, and it's a way to slow down adding to the 4,000 dead-tree books I'm already surrounded with.)

If all this guy wants to do is collect something pretty, maybe he'd be happier with a shelf full of Hummel figurines.
posted by easily confused at 4:42 PM on July 11, 2015 [7 favorites]

I own a lot of books on politics, or social issues, or history, or philosophy, or other books that generally have a left-wing political and social bent. And the truth is there are probably more of these books where I've read the introduction than the whole contents. But that's on purpose. While I'd love to have time to read all of them, the reality is that sometimes I want to have a book to cover a specific topic, so I read the introduction to get a sense of what the book is about and then file it for when in the future I want to read about that topic. I'd say this is pretty essential to library-keeping. In a way, having a bunch of books about a topic on my shelf indicates my priorities and ideas.

Digital books suck. They will continue to suck for a long time. Ironically, the way I enjoy reading long text on a computer is strange and time-consuming. I'll take a long text, say a Project Gutenberg e-book, with fixed line lengths. Then I copy it into Word and fix all the line breaks while reading it. It sounds weird and OCD but I engage with the text really strongly when doing it and enjoy it more than I enjoy reading books on my iPad.
posted by graymouser at 4:48 PM on July 11, 2015 [10 favorites]

The Creature household is in the process of moving to another state. As part of this process, I have spent considerable time trying to de-book my shelves.

My decision tree is fairly simple:

Have I read this?
Will I read it again?
Is there any strong reason I couldn't read it on my Kindle?
If the answer to all three is YES, I keep the book. If not, it goes to Goodwill.

Not surprisingly, this doesn't actually make the process any easier.
posted by Doleful Creature at 4:48 PM on July 11, 2015 [8 favorites]

Why would anyone want a library full of books they've already read?

May my shelves always be full of unknown friends yet to be met!
posted by jammy at 4:49 PM on July 11, 2015 [13 favorites]

And then there’s the Japanese word tsundoku,
which perfectly describes the state of my apartment. It means buying books and letting them pile up unread.

The word dates back to the very beginning of modern Japan, the Meiji era (1868-1912) and has its origins in a pun. Tsundoku, which literally means reading pile, is written in Japanese as 積ん読. Tsunde oku means to let something pile up and is written 積んでおく. Some wag around the turn of the century swapped out that oku (おく) in tsunde oku for doku (読) – meaning to read. Then since tsunde doku is hard to say, the word got mushed together to form tsundoku.
(link courtesy of little apollo)
posted by Len at 4:51 PM on July 11, 2015 [27 favorites]

I think it was Harlan Ellison who, when asked if he had read every book in his sprawling home library, answered, "Why would I want a library full of books that I've already read?"
On preview: grrrrr jammy!
posted by jabah at 4:52 PM on July 11, 2015 [3 favorites]

I get pleasure from reading books, not from owning them, partly because I've spent much of my adult life moving around and there are only so many times you can walk to the post office with trunks full of books. I've purchased and given away, sold for pennies, or thrown away thousands of books over the years, thinking about all of the money involved, money I really didn't have, makes me feel a little sick.

Kindle + library is a wonderful, miraculous thing, and I am afraid that one day it will simply vanish. Out of the 77 books I've read this year, only 6 were on paper, and 4 of those were from the library.
posted by betweenthebars at 4:52 PM on July 11, 2015 [1 favorite]

My goal is to get my book collection down to 500 (perfectly curated) volumes, but then I look around and think, oh, I might want to reread that... except Pynchon. Anyone want a copy of Gravity's Rainbow?
posted by betweenthebars at 4:56 PM on July 11, 2015

“The writer Umberto Eco belongs to that small class of scholars who are encyclopedic, insightful, and nondull. He is the owner of a large personal library (containing thirty thousand books), and separates visitors into two categories: those who react with “Wow! Signore, professore dottore Eco, what a library you have ! How many of these books have you read?” and the others - a very small minority - who get the point that a private library is not an ego-boosting appendage but a research tool. Read books are far less valuable than unread ones. The library should contain as much of what you don’t know as your financial means, mortgage rates and the currently tight real-estate market allows you to put there. You will accumulate more knowledge and more books as you grow older, and the growing number of unread books on the shelves will look at you menancingly. Indeed, the more you know, the larger the rows of unread books. Let us call this collection of unread books an antilibrary.”

Nassim Nicholas Taleb, The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable

Your large mass of unread books is a constant reminder of how much you don't know so don't dilly dally!
posted by bukvich at 4:59 PM on July 11, 2015 [11 favorites]

I do enjoy the feel of a traditional book, but I don't think I'd ever have finished Infinite Jest if I hadn't put it on my e-reader* and taken it on holiday -- I was not about to lug the 1079-page paperback around in my carry-on luggage. That, and I can borrow ebooks from the public library without ever leaving my house, it's fantastic! At this point I only buy physical books I've already read and loved, so that when I tell a friend oh my god you need to read this book I know you will love it I can just hand them my copy.

I'm sympathetic to the idea that you should have a collection of great books that you intend to read someday, but you don't really need to own them, do you? You just need to keep track of them in a list. GoodReads, anyone?

*My e-reader is a Nook. Screw all you guys who talk of your Kindles and MacBooks and iPhones instead of just your e-readers and laptops and phones.
posted by a car full of lions at 5:08 PM on July 11, 2015 [8 favorites]

I have a lot of books, and a lot I haven't read. About 10-1.
I have kept the books that meet these criteria: 1) I can foresee re-reading them or using them as reference, 2) are not going to be automatically easy to find, or 3) favorites I want to have around, or 4) haven't read yet, but interest me and I plan to read.
I have too many books.
But, temptation is always present for me--I work in a used bookstore.
The reasons people buy books are many and fascinating...
posted by librosegretti at 5:13 PM on July 11, 2015 [2 favorites]

I'm an academic, and ebooks just don't work for me for work. I like to mark, and flip and skim; and I remember content by location in the physical book. PDFs of journal articles are fine, though I'd prefer the paper copy.

It is also incredibly wonderful to see a citation of a book and walk over to the bookshelf to check it.

For pleasure reading, ebooks are dandy.
posted by persona au gratin at 5:13 PM on July 11, 2015 [6 favorites]

I have bought two F. Scott Fitzgerald novels (which I had already read) just for the "look" of their covers. So I think you can imagine what my library looks like.
posted by kuanes at 5:22 PM on July 11, 2015 [1 favorite]

Reading this comment on MeFi a few years back changed my life. I can't buy a book without contemplating mortality now.
posted by thetortoise at 5:24 PM on July 11, 2015 [4 favorites]

The other major objection to ebooks for academics is that they're simply not available: most of the books in my massive office collection are out of print, the runs are extremely short even when they're in print, and I've never found kindle versions of even the most popular and important critical texts -- forget the obscure stuff that I travel to libraries to read! I agree on the PDFs of journal articles, as I've never been able to sort and keep my paper photocopies. But I still print them to read them.

Pleasure reading, sure, as long as you don't forget that you've read that particular murder mystery twice now. And I do like the comforting cocoon that my books provide, even the crappy murder mysteries. :)
posted by jrochest at 5:26 PM on July 11, 2015 [4 favorites]

I think of my books as my library. I am not an academic anymore, but I used to walk over & reference things in books I could only either access in an academic library or have on my own shelf at home. These days I have slightly different things on my shelves, but I often still have to reference things.

And then there are the first edition Alasdair Gray books which are just works of art. I don't own nearly enough of those.
posted by kariebookish at 5:26 PM on July 11, 2015 [3 favorites]

Of course it's fun to have lots of books around! Granted, it's not necessarily practical--I purchased both House the Original and House the Sequel* specifically because they had rooms in which I could store a lot of books--but still, there's a certain comfort involved.

More practically, though, as an academic I have a working library, not a collector's library per se. I'm not near a major research library and much of what I need is still not digitized, so if I want to use it, I might as well have it on my shelf. Crossing the Atlantic to use the British Library for six weeks, which I just did, is fun, but not what you'd call a regular option. Academic e-books without set page numbers are useless (not all editors will accept loc. #s) and the pricing nearly as ludicrous as hardcopy (no, Oxford, I'm not spending $144 on an e-book I won't actually own). I do buy e-books regularly, but they're often books that I would once have just dumped on the free books table after finishing them.

*--Which, incidentally, was modified by the original owners to accommodate their antique grandfather clock, so at least I'm not the only eccentric to have owned this house.
posted by thomas j wise at 5:29 PM on July 11, 2015 [4 favorites]

I have a large amount of books that are now in boxes and storage. I have no where to put them since I had to leave my house.

I've pretty much gone completely digital for the past few years. A few paper books have made appearances from a couple of second hand places but that's about it.

In the past couple of months I have started buying paper again. I've started to get into graphic novels and comic volumes. It just makes sense to me to get these in physical form because of the artwork. So now my one lone bookshelf has about a dozen volumes of "Ms Marvel, Rat Queens, Captain Marvel and Saga." I expect it's going to grow as I'm falling in love with this new to me genre and have a list for every paycheck.

Will be interesting once I'm on my own again to have people perusing my shelves. I expect reactions will be quite different then before.
posted by Jalliah at 5:47 PM on July 11, 2015 [1 favorite]

For me, it's specifically about used bookstores. Used books as objects. Going to a used bookstore is how I like to spend a Saturday afternoon. Most of the time I don't even buy anything. I just like looking through shelves of old books. It's so easy to find the best books online, but the random assortment you find at used stores puts you in contact with stuff you might never have heard of. There's something kind of nice about not having total control over everything all the time. I have a very modest collection of books of folk music, and trawling through shelves for something interesting is more fun than just searching for titles or keywords. It's a hobby, as productive or important as any other, but I like it.

Besides, maybe it's the screen I use, but I really prefer reading physical copies of things. I'm sure I have some sort of undiagnosed learning disability, because I tend to reread passages over and over again, and I find that much easier to do with a physical book. And, like persona au gratin, I also like to remember content by its physical location. It's just easier for me to process that way. And a book doesn't have multiple tabs to open and distract myself, it doesn't give me the option of getting bored and doing something else. That's kind of important for me, even if, on some level, it is just an excuse to get me to buy more books.

I'm sure I'm participating in some kind of cultural posturing, and it's vanity that drives my desire to have shelves full of books. I don't know, we can't all be perfect all the time. I like my books.
posted by teponaztli at 5:48 PM on July 11, 2015 [9 favorites]

I remember content by location in the physical book

This is what has stopped me from using an ereader so far. I'll give in and get one at some point soon, because it is a much better format for reading disposable fiction while traveling, but I don't see it being a replacement for other kinds of books for me.

That said, in the last two moves I have been ruthless in getting rid of books and have pared them down to a much more manageable number. We add a few now and then, but very selectively, almost more in the way I buy art than in the way I used to buy books.

I've purchased and given away, sold for pennies, or thrown away thousands of books over the years, thinking about all of the money involved, money I really didn't have, makes me feel a little sick.

This gives me real pain as well.
posted by Dip Flash at 5:51 PM on July 11, 2015

I forgot.

The weird thing is that since it's been so long I will probably get rid of the majority of my hundreds of books that are in storage. I really haven't missed them.

Never thought this would be the case but as of now they so much part of old life me that I'm really not sure I care whether they come back to be part of new life me.
posted by Jalliah at 5:51 PM on July 11, 2015 [1 favorite]

That we always feel we must justify our ownership of books, that we must place ourselves on one side or the other of the library question, the ebook question, the read/unread question, as though there is a morality of books, a proper biblioethics that we're all aware of, and all aware we've sinned against, seems to flatten the entire experience of the book, mashing your relationship of this thing across time, into some bland matrix of pragmatism: Is this book useful? Will I read it again? Will I read it ever?

I love books. I love them with a torrid passion that has been at times life-affirming and at other times life-destroying. I love them indiscriminately. I can mark off passages of my life with what books I have acquired, or gotten rid of. I seethe with jealousy when I know someone has better, or more, books than I have. I feel the intense urge to explain to you just how many books have passed through my hands, my shelves, as though this were the thing that has given my life meaning, this is my life's measure, the great stack going to the sky; the eternal distrust I have earned from friends forced to carry dozens, scores, of book boxes up and down narrow staircases during moves; the eternal pain and emptiness caused by selling or giving away some of them; the frank horror of the storage building, with its leaky roof, that destroyed thousands of volumes, that I cannot bear to go through and get rid of, allowing them to dissolve into a state of inky nature with their spiders and roaches and mice.

I spent the weekend building new shelves so that I can finally display the books I have remaining, that didn't meet the hellish fate of the storage building. A good wall of books, to complement the two walls in my office, and the fancy carousel bookcase I got the other day when a store went out of business. I haven't organized anything yet. Two years these books have been sitting around here in stacks and piles, halfway shelved, halfway not, the pile of new acquisitions steadily growing behind me. The organization in here must have involved whatever books fit best in whichever box, because they appear to be arranged by size. A nice game when you are bored is to look at a random arrangement of books and try to fit a pattern, a theme, around them.

I'm not a collector. I do not care about first editions, I do not care about age and condition (except that if a book makes me sneeze I have to leave it behind). I'm no longer quite such a bibliomane as I have been in the past. These days I do try to have some reasonable criteria before buying a book. Not, "Will I read this?" because that's a foolish limitation: You do not know from day to day what you will want to read, and you don't know if you'll buy a book and then get hit by a truck on the way home. One's firm commitment to reading a book is just a romantic folly dressed up as practical planning. But: "Does looking at this bring me joy, does it fulfill this subconscious criteria for rightness that remains substantially unexamined in my mind? Will it make me seem a certain way to people who see it on a shelf?" This last one ironic, since, as an agoraphobe, I have very few people ever see them on shelves, but I've learned it has more to do with how we construct ourselves: Would I want to appear the sort of person who has three unread copies of Silas Marner? Apparently so.

I appear to be recommending the worst of both worlds: Buying books you don't intend to read, and then not even bothering to display them in the way of people who buy books they don't intend to read but do intend you to see. But that's not quite it either. Kate Atkinson's Case Histories has been on my shelf for nearly a decade. Yesterday I picked it up and fell in love with the writing, and have been engrossed in it every spare minute. If I hadn't picked it up (probably at Goodwill?) lo these many years ago, I'd have denied myself this pleasure. I do read. But I don't think that ownership of an unread book is in any way a secondary pleasure to reading. A book is a physical manifestation of potential. It crackles with possibility. Its very presence does something to your (to my) brain, lodging itself into the mental map, the little library we carry in our heads. Reading it is only half its purpose; the other half is that it simply must be. The book is its own imperative.

And finally I will say that I burn with envy at Bittle's Foucault, while I am stuck with the sad old incomplete Madness and Civilization. I would ask him to borrow it, and then never give it back.
posted by mittens at 5:52 PM on July 11, 2015 [29 favorites]

Speaking personally, some books have such value in memory or association that their contents are ancillary to their material purpose. And who knows? Maybe my father's copies of The structural engineers handbook (1924), The theory of heat (1904) and The engineers, mining surveyors and contractors field book (1871) will come in handy one post-google day.

I subscribe to the unread library idea. Of my 15 jam-packed shelves, only five are fiction and only two of those or less would be fiction that I have read. Of the collected and kept read fiction, most fall into or overlap five categories: virtually irreplaceable small-run Australian fiction; collected Indian fiction from the margins; fiction that needs another reading; special editions; and the fiction I use in teaching.

A number of my required academic texts are available via e-book and the cost saving is substantial. But I buy paper copies if I can afford them because I am a visual learner; I remember and relate ideas to places on a page and parts of a book visually, and e-books don't work for that.

A great self-loving surprise in life is to buy an fiction book, maybe for its title or cover, shelve it for months or years ignored until one day when things aren't right in life you reach for that book, almost absent-mindedly, and the story inside is exactly the story you needed to carry you through. I always feel so grateful to my past self when that happens.
posted by Thella at 5:52 PM on July 11, 2015 [7 favorites]

I transitioned to all digital years ago, but until recently had a particular problem. I was stuck with a couple hundred horrible books. All of my good books were given to friends or sold off, but I was trapped with a big shelf full of books that absolutely no one wanted. For whatever reason I couldn't bring myself to throw them away, and absolutely no one wanted them. It was the albatross around my neck for years.

Fortunately, I finally came to an acceptable solution. I was moving and just left the shelf full of books in the vacated apartment. Someone else's problem now.
posted by Literaryhero at 5:54 PM on July 11, 2015 [6 favorites]

I bet Choose Your Own Adventure books aren't nearly as much fun on an e-reader.
posted by teponaztli at 5:57 PM on July 11, 2015 [6 favorites]

Ive saved so much money by adding all the books I want to read to my Amazon wishlist rather than buying them and putting them in a pile on my desk.
posted by T.D. Strange at 5:59 PM on July 11, 2015 [12 favorites]

Kate Atkinson's Case Histories has been on my shelf for nearly a decade. Yesterday I picked it up and fell in love with the writing, and have been engrossed in it every spare minute. If I hadn't picked it up (probably at Goodwill?) lo these many years ago, I'd have denied myself this pleasure.
posted by mittens at 10:52 AM on July 12
A great self-loving surprise in life is to buy an fiction book, maybe for its title or cover, shelve it for months or years ignored until one day when things aren't right in life you reach for that book, almost absent-mindedly, and the story inside is exactly the story you needed to carry you through. I always feel so grateful to my past self when that happens.
posted by Thella at 10:52 AM on July 12

For some reason, this synchronicity of thought pleases me greatly.
posted by Thella at 6:00 PM on July 11, 2015 [7 favorites]

When I scan my bookshelf each spine reminds me in a visceral fashion of my original reaction to the content behind it. This is a very primitive hard-wired thing for humans.

I remember content by location in the physical book

posted by cotton dress sock at 6:02 PM on July 11, 2015 [1 favorite]

And then there’s the Japanese word tsundoku,

And its more modern variant - Steamdoku
posted by ymgve at 6:05 PM on July 11, 2015 [1 favorite]

I bet Choose Your Own Adventure books aren't nearly as much fun on an e-reader.

But now we have Wikipedia, that Choose Your Own Nerd Adventure you can play even on a Kindle.
posted by Thing at 6:14 PM on July 11, 2015

I will not apologize for my preference of Kindle over dead trees. I have little room. The books that are most important to me, that have meant to the most in my life, I have in paper and on Kindle. And the books that can only be beautiful on paper ... the art books, for instance ... are on paper.

The last paper book I bought was William Gibson's newest, The Peripheral. He is one of few authors whose books I will always buy on paper, as well as electronically. (Maybe, eventually, in Audible format as well, when the WhisperSync price comes down. Because hearing Gibson being read aloud is an experience of its own).

I have loved books forever, and that will never change. But to me, the content is more important than the format. Yeah, I know, there's nothing as good as the smell and feel of paper. I get it. But my Kindle is small, it's easy to have the whole library there, and yes, I can make the damn type bigger.
posted by lhauser at 6:20 PM on July 11, 2015 [5 favorites]

I haven't really got a dog in the physical vs. Digital thing, but I will inform you that shakespeherian's Choose Your Own Adventure By Committee series on G+ was fantastic and a ton of fun to read and participate in.
posted by carsonb at 6:22 PM on July 11, 2015 [1 favorite]

as an academic and journalist books are work tools for me, and the ones i have not read are because i have little time. (the 600 page critical bio of benjamin, i am looking at you).
posted by PinkMoose at 6:27 PM on July 11, 2015

also how the fuck do you properly annotate on a kindle, or a pdf. I have to have a seperate word document open, and then all of the notes get muddled, on a dead tree edition, i can just flip to the front page and have a running list of annotations. Serious quesiton. It's why I haven't re-read the Rorty i need to this summer.
posted by PinkMoose at 6:32 PM on July 11, 2015 [1 favorite]

I didn't RTFA. But I do feel a little annoyed by the way some people almost fetishize books. My mother was a librarian. I love books. But most people do not need to own more than 50 books because most books could be replaced or downloaded if someone really needed to reread The Corrections or Infinite Jest for whatever reason. Books are more stuff. When you move and you have to pack and unpack everything you own, it doesn't matter. When your mom dies and you have to go through all of her stuff and find multiple copies of several books, it doesn't matter. It's just stuff.

Don't get me wrong, I have a lot of books. But I try to share them with someone once I'm done reading them and hope to myself that they'll forget to return it and maybe even share it with someone else. That's a preferable life for a book, in my opinion, to sitting on one of my shelves at home, gathering dust and under appreciated.

But. I would like to reproduce someday and I feel a little sad thinking that a future baby wouldnt have as many books in the house. I don't yet know how to thread that needle, besides taking countless trips to the library, which would delight future baby's grandmother anyway.
posted by kat518 at 6:55 PM on July 11, 2015 [7 favorites]

bukvich quotes Taleb referencing Eco, and Eco came immediately to mind when I read this article. My copy of How to Travel with a Salmon was at the ready, though I haven't picked it up for years. Spatial memory brought my hand to its place on the shelf. In the same time that a digital search would have taken, flipping through its pages brought back a ramified network of readings: places, contexts, other portions of the book, other books I've been wanting to read, to revisit.

In the essay "How to Justify a Private Library," Eco writes:
The visitor enters and says, "What a lot of books! Have you read them all?" [...] It could be said that they are still people who consider a bookshelf as a mere storage place for already-read books and do not think of the library as a working tool. But there is more to it than that. I believe that, confronted by a vast array of books, anyone will be seized by the anguish of learning, and will inevitably lapse into asking the question that expresses his torment and remorse.

[...] In the past I adopted a tone of contemptuous sarcasm. "I haven't read any of them; otherwise, why would I keep them here?" But this is a dangerous answer because it invites the obvious follow-up: "And where do you put them after you've read them?" [...] Now I have fallen back on the riposte: "No, these are the ones that I have to read by the end of the month. I keep the others in my office," a reply that on the one hand suggests a sublime ergonomic strategy, and on the other leads the visitor to hasten the moment of his departure."
Books are not some sort of public performance that I put on to impress the neighbors...keeping up with the Doctors Jones, as it were. My thoughts on Bittle's article are captured earlier in Eco's piece:
I'm not saying people are banal. Taking as divine inspiration, as a flash of originality, something that is obvious reveals a certain freshness of spirit, an enthusiasm for life and its unpredictability, a love of ideas—small as they may be.
Of course some people use them as social signifiers. So what? You're feeling insecure because you have books? Well, you'd feel insecure if you didn't have them, all the same.
[...] I felt a strain: the huge red book looked so good from where I was sitting, and its absence would mean I have to rearrange that shelf and the three beneath it.
Yeah, I've got nothing I want to talk to this guy about. He won't lend out a book because he'd have to reorganize his shelves? There's a perfectly good reason not lend books: people are thieving weasels who will not return them; if you hand one out, don't expect it back.

Also, Jason should die in a hideous yet comically ironic wood pulp accident.
posted by zenoli at 6:57 PM on July 11, 2015 [6 favorites]

The Key to Rereading, by Tim Parks.
posted by mittens at 7:06 PM on July 11, 2015 [4 favorites]

My husband and I are both book-collecting bibliophiles, with the difference that I READ THE BOOKS I BUY and HE DOES NOT and this drives me FUCKING CRAZY. Why are you acquiring all these books you're not going to read? They're sitting there taking up VALUABLE SHELF SPACE and you're just NOT READING THEM! I've entered about 1,000 of mine into librarything, and probably have 500 more to go ... I have about 30 hard-copy books I haven't read (180 unread on my kindle; I've read 974 books on my kindle). My husband probably also has around 1500 books, and after almost 13 years of marriage I have read more of his damn books than he has.

I 100% do not understand the purpose of buying books you have no intention of reading. I can barely keep up with purchasing and borrowing (from the library) enough words to keep my brain busy, especially since daily newspapers went to shit! (I went through books way slower when I read three daily newspapers every day, front to back. Now I read none. It is sad.)
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 7:16 PM on July 11, 2015 [2 favorites]

I reread books all the time. I've actually gone back out and re-bought books when I've lost them/given them away because I want to read them again. I'm also a fan of keeping notes in the margins as I read (some books have notes from three different rereads, which is always good for a laugh). There are some books I've never read and maybe even some I never will (though one day I may give you another go, Robert Musil). I lend/give favorite books from my own shelves away all the time, which mostly accounts for why I've bought The Third Policeman about six times now. I have more books than I have records, but in general, my friends are far more worried about the possibility of getting asked to help me move the vinyl collection.

I say this every time it comes up. I can't have a Kindle unless they invent one that's 1) waterproof (for bathtub/pool/lakeside/oceanside/boat reading) 2) allows me to doodle and scrawl in the margins and 3) has places hide letters and things between the pages.
posted by thivaia at 7:17 PM on July 11, 2015 [3 favorites]

I don't have much of a library because I tend to borrow books from the library more than I buy them, and I'm not an academic so I dont have a need for a research library.

When I do buy books I often give them away when I'm done. In sentimental or aesthetic terms it appeals much more to me to think that the book spends the rest of its days drifting from hand to hand being discovered by different people, rather than simply mouldering on my shelf as a trophy.
posted by bracems at 7:28 PM on July 11, 2015 [1 favorite]

I am rather unimpressed with people who have books nowadays.

It seems much more for show, than for the actual purpose the trees were cut down for.

15 or so years ago, people used to have all sorts of fancy ways to show off their music collection. Mp3s, napster, iTunes, spotify...that shit is pretty much gone now.

But with books it continues. And it isn't the perennial library user who does this. It's usually people who never even think to go to the library to reread Willa Cather, it's the people who would pay to get a copy of that book just so the spine looks 'just perfect' with the rest of the books on their bookshelves.

I also note that at least in my circle of peoples, it's the people who read the least that have the most physical books.

It reminds me of those freshman dorms that had stacks and stacks of empty Absolut bottles all over the place. Yes, I understand you drink. But deep down, we both know you didn't drink ALL the liquor from all of those bottles. You just kept the bottle for show.

Same with physical books.

I was surprised as hell to learn that my dad has a kindle and has finished 384 books. The only books he has in his house are reference books, and the books my brother and I weren't able to sell back in college.
posted by hal_c_on at 7:43 PM on July 11, 2015 [3 favorites]

Well, I don't take out library books because I always wind up owning them, whether I want to or not. No matter how many notices I get, however they're delivered or timed. I do actually pay for them, probably twice what they're worth. So if I don't want to feel bad about myself, I buy the book I want to read before I read it.

I obviously do read things on-screen - hopefully, I even remember some of them - but I'm just much more likely to skim and skip when content is presented that way. I find it easier to grasp an idea if I, well, grasp (destroy) its physical correlate. Any book I've loved (or had to get into) is not really fit for a public that's not me, and that's not why I have it on my shelf.
posted by cotton dress sock at 8:24 PM on July 11, 2015 [2 favorites]

I suppose I'm parochial or something, but it never even occurred to me that people would buy books and not read them. What could possibly be the point of that? I mean, each to their own but that just seems weird. Like buying food and not eating it level weird.

I knew there were some rich people who had a "library" just for the sake of having one, but the idea of people who aren't living in mansions who collect books as objects is completely new to me. And I'm 40.

Between us, my partner and I have around 500 books in the house. We'd have more, but space doesn't permit. We acquire them by the simple expedient of buying books, reading them, and then putting them on the shelf to later re-read. I re-read more than she does, I tracked it one year and found that around 40% of what I read was re-reading. Stuff we have no intention of re-reading goes to a used book store as we run out of room on the shelves.

As for books as objects, I'll concede that a well made hardback is a lovely thing. But I buy a lot of stuff on Kindle, Nook, or whatever as well. I read on my tablet so I'm free to buy at the lowest price I can find rather than being locked into a single hardware reader (which does produce the annoying problem of having to dig through four reader apps if I can't remember where I bought a particular book).

Anyway, the only thing I'll really condemn is stealing from libraries. If collecting books as nick knacks is your thing I say go for it. It confuses me, but what people do for their own entertainment is none of my business as long as it isn't hurting others.
posted by sotonohito at 8:24 PM on July 11, 2015 [1 favorite]

I really want to have you all over and let you pick out a book to take home.
posted by carsonb at 8:41 PM on July 11, 2015 [7 favorites]

Losing 1/3 of my books to flooding, all the art books, a couple of favorite authors, taught me that books are things and not to get too attached. Not a pleasant lesson. Is it generational that I think houses without books look weird? I bring home lots of books, because what if there's nothing to read? I read the news on the Internet now, and I hang out online, and it has reduced the actual books I read. But there should be books to be read, and one in the car, maybe one in my purse, certainly something on the phone, because I could be stuck somewhere without a book. scary.
posted by theora55 at 8:49 PM on July 11, 2015 [5 favorites]

And all you Marie Kondo minimalist people? Of objects in my home, books are the most likely t spark actual joy. Sure, I have some socks that amuse me, and I like my kitchen stuff pretty well, but some books are old friends and they provide comfort, warmth, and genuine joy.
posted by theora55 at 8:55 PM on July 11, 2015 [11 favorites]

Socks “take a brutal beating in their daily work, trapped between your foot and your shoe, enduring pressure and friction to protect your precious feet,” she writes. “The time they spend in your drawer is their only chance to rest.”

Huh, never heard of her but based on some Googling I have determined that she is awesome. (Though I am a slob myself, I aspire to be an uncluttered slob.) Thanks for mentioning her.

Also, doesn't sound like she would advise you to dump the books that do bring you joy anyway.

“It’s going to be labor-intensive and time-consuming, but you need to take all the books down and put them on the floor,” she said. “Take them down and spread them in one area. Physically pick each book up, one by one. If the book inspires you, keep it. If not, it goes out. That’s the standard by which you decide.”
posted by Drinky Die at 9:10 PM on July 11, 2015

If I didn't have bookcases lining so many walls of my home, I'd actually have to think about how to fill those walls with other types of decoration. My house is furnished in books and I wouldn't have it any other way--the sight of all the books on my shelves brings me comfort and a true feeling of home.
posted by bookmammal at 9:14 PM on July 11, 2015 [7 favorites]

I think mittens said it best: "A book is a physical manifestation of potential. It crackles with possibility. Its very presence does something to your (to my) brain, lodging itself into the mental map, the little library we carry in our heads. Reading it is only half its purpose; the other half is that it simply must be. The book is its own imperative."

What a cogent and cohesive statement. I had to re-read the post, it was that good. As for me, I've been book-addicted since age 12, and am a speed reader. My books have taken over my tiny, modest apartment. But I don't mind, I basically pay for their rent. They are packed in the shelves, lined up in stacks on the side of the radiator cabinets, stacked on the dresser, stacked in vertical columns in the kitchen. I have read probably about 3/4 of them, the others I know I will eventually get to. When I was doing research for several authors back in the day, I spent much time in libraries, but came soon to a mental place where I wanted to own what I've invested so much of my life in, whether spiritual tomes and music (the majority) or Shakespeare, psychology, poetry or bios. Even if they've taken over my living quarters. These are my friends. I could never part with them.
posted by Seekerofsplendor at 9:31 PM on July 11, 2015 [4 favorites]

In the early eighties somebody kept dropping off Modern Library hardcovers with the original dust jackets off at a thrift store near me. I bought them up. They were not just good books, they were beautiful.

And there is nothing quite like getting interrogated first thing in the morning about whether such machines could work after your kid gets into the Kafka. How long bodies don't stink after the Faulkner.

Having books around when you have kids lets you sleep a bit longer on days off. But you wake a bit more abruptly to some conversation that seems surreal before you've had your tea.
posted by Mr. Yuck at 9:33 PM on July 11, 2015 [1 favorite]

I also note that at least in my circle of peoples, it's the people who read the least that have the most physical books.

I think you might need a better circle of peoples!

Personally, nothing makes me more uncomfortable than taking a tour of someone's home and not seeing any books. It feels alien and unwelcoming.
posted by Justinian at 9:36 PM on July 11, 2015 [13 favorites]

I guess the reason I don't often get stuff from the library is that I don't always finish my books that quickly. I'm easily distracted, and I'll be reading half a dozen things at once. It's taken me years to finish some books, not because they were long, but because I would read some, do other things, read more, realize I had to start over, read it every few weeks, and so on. I don't do this all the time, and maybe it sounds like some crime against literature to read like this. But it works for me, and the end result is that even though I can and do get books from the library, and I can and do read some books quickly, I like the freedom that comes with knowing something will be there for me when I want it.

I have gotten rid of books thinking I didn't need them anymore and then, years later, gone looking for them again. Obviously there are plenty I've gotten rid of and never thought about again, but there's always something.
posted by teponaztli at 9:53 PM on July 11, 2015 [1 favorite]

Also! Since we're talking about books, one great thing about used books is that they sometimes come with a little history. I spent some time in Berlin when I was younger, and I got a copy of Heart of Darkness, one of the only books I could find in English, at a used bookstore in Friedrichshain. I will never get rid of it, both because it's a great book and because it's a memento of a very specific time and place in my life.

The best part, for me, is that there's an inscription on the inside cover (it's a thin paperback) that could only have come from that one place where I got it. I'm moving, so that particular book is in storage right now, but it says, as well as I can remember: "I got this for you because it was the only good book I could find in English, and because it was the only book I could find for under 5 Marx. Love."
posted by teponaztli at 9:57 PM on July 11, 2015 [2 favorites]

I guess the reason I don't often get stuff from the library is that I don't always finish my books that quickly. I'm easily distracted, and I'll be reading half a dozen things at once. It's taken me years to finish some books, not because they were long, but because I would read some, do other things, read more, realize I had to start over, read it every few weeks, and so on.

This was such a problem for me that the best solution I could figure was to get into a position where I could fudge my due dates and waive my overdue fines. Oh, and get dibs on the FotL donations.
posted by carsonb at 9:59 PM on July 11, 2015 [1 favorite]

A book is a physical manifestation of potential.

One of the things I've picked up from discussions here of Marie Kondo and of the various aspects of hoarding is how focused people are on the potential of their possessions. It makes getting rid of things very hard for many people, and for good reasons.

For me, it became a lot easier to reduce my books when I realized that I will always have access to at least a public library system, and likely to an academic research library as well. There are books that are still worth owning for me -- they are beautiful, or sentimental, or just plain important to me for whatever reason. But it turned out I had shelves and shelves of "in case I might need them" books that I was keeping purely for their potential, and recognizing that I could give them away and still have access to that potential in the future was very freeing.
posted by Dip Flash at 10:09 PM on July 11, 2015 [5 favorites]

My favorite books on my shelf belonged to my late cousin. Most of the other books can be easily replaced.
posted by Brocktoon at 12:34 AM on July 12, 2015

Before I got divorced, experienced some bad times, and moved to another part of the USA I had thousands of books. Property had to be sold and after I had picked out a few choice volumes my ex burned the remainder. I don't miss them. My laptop contains an extensive library of epub books, and I never have to box them up and lift them. I'll never have to build another bookshelf again, and I've built dozens in my time. Times and needs change.
posted by Agave at 12:55 AM on July 12, 2015

Heh, I got rid of all my physical books.

Out of curiosity, when you went digital how many books did you have and did you replace them all? Because one of the dirty little secrets of digital books is how few are actually digitised once you move away from contemporary bestsellers, how much science fiction history lies mouldering in secondhand bookstores and nowhere else frex. I'd have a real challenge replacing my my library, not to mention the cost -- there are no secondhand ebooks.
posted by MartinWisse at 1:29 AM on July 12, 2015 [4 favorites]

This was such a problem for me that the best solution I could figure was to get into a position where I could fudge my due dates and waive my overdue fines

This is stealing from the library. You not only ripped off the library, but also the patrons who would have wanted that book.

Please see above to see what mefites think of people who steal from the library.

Perhaps you need to let go of physical books, and just get all digital. Even borrow digital from your library. That when when its overdue, you won't have to steal and justify it with some bs.
posted by hal_c_on at 1:43 AM on July 12, 2015 [2 favorites]

I do it for the love and money.
posted by clavdivs at 2:01 AM on July 12, 2015

I don't have many books from the "classics" and "must read" lists. I gravitate towards unique books (usually from used bookstores) that speak to me.

So in a way, my bookshelf is an external embodiment of me and my interests, even if I've only read through 20% of the pages on the shelves. It's interesting to look it over and see which facets shine brightest to me as time goes on and my interests shift around.

As for why I don't read things as I get them, I'm a moody reader. Just because a book looks interesting, doesn't mean I'm interested in reading it right away. But if I pass it by, I may never get a chance to buy it again! I don't think it's materialistic--trees are a renewable resource and books are environmentally-friendly, compared with the plastic entertainment sources I could be buying instead.

There's nothing like reading the right book at the right point in your life, which means having a good selection to choose from. I also enjoy the thought that my bookshelf is a more knowledgeable version of me than I'll ever be. (Let's face it, even if I'd read everything on there, it's not like I'd still be able to recall all of it!)
posted by mantecol at 2:02 AM on July 12, 2015 [2 favorites]

Out of curiosity, when you went digital how many books did you have and did you replace them all?

Not that many, I've never been much of a book collector. Only ones I got rid of that had sentimental value were the Weis and Hickman books I collected as a kid, but I still have a reply from a letter I sent to Tracy Hickman somewhere around here so I figure that covers it. I didn't see any point in replacing any of the books I got rid of, none of it was anything you couldn't find on Amazon.

Only books I did save were stuff I want to pass on to my nephew for when he starts reading. There was a collection of biographies of American historical figures I was really in to when I was young and also "The Cricket in Times Square" which was one of my favorite books when I was a kid.

As for getting rid of books, the one advice I have is never let family members or friends make those sort of choices. Mom and sister gave away my autographed copy of "The Phanton Tollbooth" because they didn't realize it was autographed.
posted by Drinky Die at 2:03 AM on July 12, 2015

There are kind of lame people who clearly only buy books they think will look good on their shelves but in my experience they tend to have very few books. People with lots of books tend to read and enjoy most of them or at least enjoy collecting specific objects. They're not buying for an audience, they're buying for themselves.

I don't over romanticize books and I openly admit to being materialistic. It's nice to have stuff you like and one could do a lot worse than spending money on books. For me, having nice bookshelves filled with books I've mostly read (with small, neat stacks of books scattered here and there) is the same as having nice art on my walls; it's an aesthetic and environment I like to be surrounded by. Kindles (and other similar devices) represent another aesthetic and mindset that's less appealing to me. They're a little like beige puffy couches and wall to wall carpeting or the inside of an Apple store. They blandly serve their purpose.

And I'll second MartinWisse, it's a myth that everything is available digitally or even at the library. If we all rely on what others deem worthy to upload to the internet or whatever your local library system decides to purchase and circulate, what happens to the objects that slip through the cracks?
posted by AtoBtoA at 2:04 AM on July 12, 2015 [5 favorites]

I read on my tablet so I'm free to buy at the lowest price I can find rather than being locked into a single hardware reader (which does produce the annoying problem of having to dig through four reader apps if I can't remember where I bought a particular book).

The way around that particular conumdrum is to get Calibre for your pc, get the orkut de-drmer plugin as well as the desktop versions of those four reader apps, then use Calibre + Orkut to manage your ebooks.

With Kindle books it's even better as the Kindle desktop programme downloads them unencrypted, so you can just drag and drop them into Calibre and then you're free to copy them to your favourite tablet.
posted by MartinWisse at 2:11 AM on July 12, 2015 [4 favorites]

I am rather unimpressed with people who have books nowadays.

I don't even have a tv.
posted by MartinWisse at 2:12 AM on July 12, 2015 [8 favorites]

I try to share them with someone once I'm done reading them and hope to myself that they'll forget to return it and maybe even share it with someone else. That's a preferable life for a book, in my opinion, to sitting on one of my shelves at home, gathering dust and under appreciated.

You're a BookCrossing member at heart and you don't even know it.
posted by Too-Ticky at 2:19 AM on July 12, 2015 [1 favorite]

To go a bit Frowneresque here, the veneration of book collecting and book hoarding, as opposed to most other forms of hoarding, is of course loaded with massive class and gender privileges, the traditional book hoarder being an upper class gentlemen. It's a way to have your collecting cake and eat it, but it clashes with our Northern European Calvinistic souls, hence all the excuses we need to find to justify our pleasure.

The other side of this coin is of course the rejection of this pleasure in favour of a minimalistic aesthetic, to prove your superiority over those attached to mere physical objects rather than the aeternal text itself.

But in the end it's all still just a somewhat more sophesticated monkey status game.
posted by MartinWisse at 2:33 AM on July 12, 2015 [5 favorites]

Metafilter: in the end it's all still just a somewhat more sophesticated monkey status game.
posted by Megami at 2:44 AM on July 12, 2015 [2 favorites]

I mariekondo'd two hundred books last week and boxed up another hundred that are out of print reference so they're not in my shelf. Now I have a single long shelf of books all with meaning and love. I read ebooks/listen to books as much as print and if it's print, half the time, I pass it on immediately.

But children's books are entirely different. I threw the damaged books (and I confess the phonics readers that didn't scan properly because it was driving me crazy rereading them to the kid when the writing would not scan! It's blank verse, for the love of poetry, make it scan!) but everything else stays. Kids should have physical books in all sizes and types to touch and nibble and leaf through and stack and eventually, curl up under blankets and read and love.

I can have a kindle and an empty shelf happily enough. But kids need physical books.
posted by dorothyisunderwood at 3:52 AM on July 12, 2015 [1 favorite]

I've been thinking about winnowing my paper-format books lately and leaving behind only the ones that are meaningful to me as representative of a feeling or a moment or a love, something that is more personal than the story.

After being ill and having to relearn to read, the experience of books as something which just sat there stubbornly unable to give me so much as a wink of leeway to access them changed a lot of how I felt about paper. I treasure them specifically as books much, much less after I ran up hard against the limitations of the format. No way to change the line spacing, no way to make the size bigger for my clumsy 'still not sure how to tell a comma and a period apart' relearning, no way to change the margins so my eyes didn't swim, no way to change the blurry font, no way to make it so these things which I used to love with my heart and soul and devour with all my childhood eagerness didn't hurt and frustrate me. Reading glasses and various paraphernalia only ever did so much to help.

Ereaders and screens give me all the things I need to be able to read with pleasure. For me the choice isn't really between "books" and "not-books", it's between "reading" or "not reading". I read a lot more, and a lot more pleasurably, when I don't have to struggle through individual words and sentences. The physical books that are meaningful to me as I am now, instead of nostalgically meaningful, tend to be picture books or heavily-illustrated fairytales and comics since they're what I could appreciate while I was illiterate. The tomes and the classics and the bits and bobs of SF&F I accrued when I was a voracious reader of paper books, not so much.

The method of asking myself "does this give me joy?" during the winnowing process is consequently a little painful. Do I remember this book giving me joy? is the more pertinent question, and there are fortunately quite a few of those I will keep. The other ones, well, there's no purpose in them when they are not appreciable as books, and I can afford toilet paper. So they will go into storage and moulder while I figure out what to do with them, and at least they won't be sitting there on the shelf.
posted by E. Whitehall at 4:27 AM on July 12, 2015 [7 favorites]

I've been thinking about winnowing my paper-format books lately and leaving behind only the ones that are meaningful to me as representative of a feeling or a moment or a love, something that is more personal than the story.

The ones I want to hold onto in physical dead tree format usually break down as follows:

- the 'original', a book that you grew up with, that has that childhood smell and sensation built into it
- the 'special edition', you already own a well used/much loved copy of this book, but you want to have the special edition because it has an interview or a new forward or its newly illustrated, a fancy hardcover with gilding, etc.
- the 'gift', these are books that your former lover may have given to you (or stole from), a birthday gift from a close friend, a book from a dead relative that holds significance, etc.
- the 'mystery', does what it says on the label, those books that just make you scratch your head, maybe you borrowed from a friend and forgot, or maybe someone from your past managed to place their book into your library, you'll never know, but the book is here and you just can't get rid of it, besides, you might eventually decide to read it,
- the 'academic', these are books from that more academic part of your life, those old norton anthologies that you refuse to let go because of your notes and highlights on the paper you wrote about modernist poetry and masculinity, that annoted edition of Shakespeare edited by Greenblatt with all the cool old time illustrations, etc.
posted by Fizz at 4:50 AM on July 12, 2015 [3 favorites]

I'm reminded of a sign I saw on the wall of City Lights bookstore in San Franciso - "buying more books than one can possibly ever read is the soul's way of trying to reach infinity."

I do intend to read all of the unread books I have I my shelves, although I do some culling ever now and then. The exceptions are the children's' books that in,over as a child, lost my copies of as an adult, and discovered again. I will only rarely re read "Henry The Explorer" or "Your Own Best Secret Place," but they aren't there to be read so much as they are there to remind me of the child I was and what she thought of the adult she wanted to be, so I can adjust to staunchest to her expectations.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 5:01 AM on July 12, 2015 [3 favorites]

My bookshelf is overwhelmingly non-fiction. I also live in an area where the local library isn't exactly hot.

Yes, whenever I see a discussion like this one, I feel totally justified in owning thousands of books, about a quarter of them unread. Because I live in a foreign country and as much as I like to read in Spanish I do not want to curl up in bed before I go to sleep with Don Quixote in the original. In my first five years in the country I had already read every English-language book avaliable at every library within 30 minutes of my neighborhood. I've been sourcing everything for the last few years from used bookshops over the internet, and I have a collection now that is the envy of my other foreign friends. I am the library now.
posted by lollymccatburglar at 5:05 AM on July 12, 2015 [1 favorite]

I am the library now.

Look at me...
posted by Fizz at 5:29 AM on July 12, 2015 [1 favorite]

I read these sorts of stories and I can't help but feel completely alienated from the kind of obsessive examination of habits and ways that these things invoke. I live in a two room apartment that I've lived in for twenty-seven years, and I have a lot of books, a lot of vinyl, a lot of cassettes and reel-to-reel tapes, a lot of vintage magazines of the Popular Mechanics ilk, and tons of carefully archived digital backups that I've accumulated after years of living in a digital world. I guess these things would be a pain to move, and moving is a distant memory from me after my first adult years, in which I'd regularly pack everything into my beat-up tan Datsun station wagon for another opportunistic move, but I'm not sure I'm suited to the life of Tinkers, circus folk, and shadowy men being hunted for crimes they did not commit.

My grandmother had one tall bookshelf that she called her "college," and it was, in fact, her high school as well, and a dogged pursuit for a woman who'd grown up with five siblings, two parents, and a monkey in a shack on the upper banks of Colgate Creek, a shabby tributary long since paved into a drainage manifold for the Baltimore shipping industry. She'd had to quit school in the third grade to work in an ice cream box factory, contributing her income to the family, and that would have been the end of her education, except for the lucky stroke that she'd come of age in the city of Enoch Pratt. By the time I came to know her, I knew that there would always be a book, or a National Geographic, beside her chair, with a bookmark on which she'd make notes of things to look up later in the huge library-grade dictionary that she'd bought after saving for years.

I attended the same "college," as it happens, though for reasons of brain architecture and the failings of the Maryland public school system in the seventies, and class would be an exhausting trudge through the incomprehensible mundane, so I'd just read and read and read and play in all those open worlds on the page. By the seventh grade, after several stints in special education, the exasperated counselors would just abandon me to a room off the guidance office and I'd read through half the day.

I have maybe a thousand books, or thereabouts, because I can't be bothered with the odd ritual of counting my books as a benchmark of whatever that is, and I've read at least half, and accumulated others with the intention to read, and keep a selection of books that I'm saving for savoring, like the thick biographies of Brian Eno, Jean Shepherd, and Gian Carlo Menotti. I have mountains of trades reference manuals for trades I either work in or intend to work in, and collections of writing on science and philosophy and big ideas.

At their most passive, these books quiet my apartment like heavy insulation, tempering the noise from the Stompington family in the next apartment; at their most romantic, they are my grandmother's college, my refuge, and whole worlds still left to explore. I reread slim volumes like The Lathe Of Heaven, Something Wicked This Way Comes, and Winesburg, Ohio with frequency, and dip into clinical books on the science of sound when need be. Non-fiction has come to overwhelm fiction on my shelves, because when I want to spend a long time in the tub, I find I want to read about sheds, or the techniques of using a router for wood joinery, or a detailed history of Sweden. Sometimes, I just dawdle through books on architecture or the history of ENIAC while the dog snores beside me.

I have an e-reader, of course, and it is the gateway to impossible libraries made real by Project Gutenberg, and I'm delighted by the potential of something that filled me with existential glee when described by Douglas Adams in favorite selections of my youth, but it's a subset of books, rather than a substitute.

I suspect, in the realm of the online cosmopolitan, that we're supposed to add the shame of collecting to the library of mortification with which we're meant to measure our value in the world of the future, but the veneration of pure white walls and pure surfaces unblemished with the tackiness of objects designed to celebrate the presumed mobility of a life centered around a bespoke tablet perched on a stand milled from fine aluminum, replacing the vulgarity of history with the awkward perfection of the modern Skoptsy-as-anticonsumerist-consumer so that we never need fend off the critique that we're keeping books just to demonstrate our privilege and erudition.

Were the public library to represent my fantasy of what it was back in the days when I was a child and would wander the low stacks of my now-demolished mid-century brutalist smalltown library that's being replaced by a vaulted glass cathedral of a-library-is-more-than-just-books, I'd have probably been content to get by with a well-worn library card and the glee of loading a stack of new reading into the basket of my bicycle, but libraries rotate collections, and books that are "worn out" get turned out to the sale rack and never get replaced because they're out of print. So I frequent the sale rack, yard sales, thrift stores, and the compact used bookstore that survives at the end of Main Street in my town despite the cantankerous owner who no longer chain smokes at his desk and the claim that bricks and mortar stores are destined to fade from us, and I buy books that I sometimes know I will not read for a long time still, because they're a dollar and contain multitudes.

I could be one of Fahrenheit 451's numbed book people, or a fetishist for booksmell, or a showy prattling First World apologist demonstrating my value through acquisition, but they're just books, just on shelves, and I keep them because I can and because I want to, and if someone perusing what I've collected thinks I'm special because of my literary tastes, that's okay, and if they wrinkle their nose, that's okay, too. Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, and people like different things.

Of course, actual books make life easier, because it's awkward to ask someone to show you their e-reader in the heat of the moment.

If you go home with somebody and they don't have books, don't fuck 'em!
—John Waters
posted by sonascope at 5:43 AM on July 12, 2015 [16 favorites]

Someone mentioned Benjamin upthread. It's interesting to compare Benjamin's classic version of this essay: "Unpacking My Library" to this one. Benjamin lacks the technological terror of the present, where the insatiable drive of the information model threatens everything material with digital liquidation, and so he is able to concern himself less with the question: "why do you own a book you've never read, and may never read?" Content, in other words, isn't the issue because there was really no alternative form of content. The books can stand as material objects unashamed of their heft and size because it isn't like they could've reasonably slimmed down, evaporated into a chip. Hence their material form can be admired for its own sake, for the extremely pleasant material qualities it possesses: the binding, the smell, the feel of the paper, the beauty of the typesetting. And this materiality itself has a positive content and is not just "mere thing"; Benjamin quotes Anatole France as saying that the only precise knowledge we can have in the world is that of "the date of publication and the format of books". The books have a history all to their own, the history of the circumstances surrounding their publication, the choices of material and so on.

But they really stand out for Benjamin in the way a collection of books can tell a personal history. Every book was purchased in such-and-such-a place when I was in such-and-such-a mood because of x,y,z event that occured. And oh! This complete set of Twain from the Library of America that I purchased after a hike overlooking the Mississippi and how grand it seemed and how purely American, and I decided then to immerse myself in American literature instead of all the foreigners I'd been reading and who better than Twain, I thought, when I came across a complete set in a St. Louis bookstore for less than $100. Sure, I'll barely make rent that month, but these books I've collected now become the physical, material embodiments of a spiritual event, a moment in my personal life history that I can now return to just by going through my shelf. I can read for you the story of my entire life by going through my books; every success and failure, every turning point in a relationship, every passion, fleeting or more permanent, is connected in some way to a book I was reading at the time, or bought because of the mood inspired by those personal events. That's what makes it so hard for me to get rid of books: when I sell them or give them away I really feel like I'm engaging in a very physical, mercenary act of forgetting: as though I'm saying: I'll sell you this part of my past, this memory, for $5.

Sure, it might be better to keep a journal, but there's something about the heft, the weight of the books, you carry them around just like you carry your past around with you whether you like it or not, and the publicness of them. Even my Marquis de Sade and my Anaïs Nin can sit proudly on my shelf in view of everyone. They're not pornography, they're literature. Here is a personal journal I hide from noone but nonetheless is for my eyes only, because only I can read the history that is written on its spines...
posted by dis_integration at 6:15 AM on July 12, 2015 [2 favorites]

What cured my book buying problem was needing to buy roughly 30,000 dollars worth of books for my library every year. Any book I would impulse buy in a shop, I just buy for the library and then borrow. Even then, I find myself falling short of my quotas, reduced to pouring through lists of Amish romances as those are always safe-bets, circ-wise.
posted by robocop is bleeding at 6:33 AM on July 12, 2015 [3 favorites]

I thought I'd leave this passage from Benjamin's essay here:
Once you have approached the mountains of cases in order to mine the books from them and bring them to the light of day - or, rather, of night - what memories crowd in upon you! Nothing highlights the fascination of unpacking more clearly than the difficulty of stopping this activity [...] Now I am on the last half-emptied case and it is way past midnight. Other thoughts fill me than the ones I am talking about - not thoughts but images, memories. Memories of the cities in which I found so many things: Riga, Naples, Munich, Danzig, Moscow, Florence, Basel, Paris; memories of Rosenthal's sumptuous rooms in Munich, of the Danzig Stockturm where the late Hans Rhaue was domiciled, of Sussengut's musty book cellar in North Berlin; memories of the rooms where these books had been housed, of my student's den in Munich, of my room in Bern, of the solitude of Iseltwald on the Lake of Brienz, and finally of my boyhood room, the former location of only four or five of the several thousand volumes that are piled up around me. O bliss of the collector, bliss of the man of leisure! [...] For inside him there are spirits, or at least little genii, which have seen to it that for a collector [...] ownership is the most intimate relationship that one can have to objects. Not that they come alive in him; it is he who lives in them.
posted by dis_integration at 6:33 AM on July 12, 2015 [1 favorite]

No one sees my messy-ass book collection, and yet I have many unread books there. They are the physical manifestation of all I aspire to be; or at least learn. That I struggle to get to many of the books is a failing of organization and optimism.

I also have a kindle, which I enjoy. But I'm more likely to read a novel on it. Anything else, and it becomes hard because it messes with my internal indexing. Say I need to know the distribution of a fish. I know that fish is 2/3s the way through on The Giant Fish Book, so I can open at roughly 2/3rds, and flip a few pages in either direction to find it. Ebooks, not so much.

I had assumed that the next generation would have other ways of internally ebooks and I had just grown up at the wrong time. And maybe I have. But the news of ebooks being in decline is interesting. I don't use my kindle as much as I used to because I'm more likely to resort to my phone or tablet, and then I'm just going to fuck around on social media or facebook. I do sometimes impulse buy books for the kindle, though, and just to bring things full circle; don't always read those either. :/
posted by [insert clever name here] at 7:42 AM on July 12, 2015

This is the first acknowledgement I think I've ever come across that book-buying is a form of materialism.

Uh, no shit? Of course it's "a form of materialism." What the frank else would it be? Nevertheless ("Did you say "nevertheless"?), I own books I will never read (early Everyman's represent!), just like I own bibelots that are only there to be looked at, clothes that I only wear once in a while, and plants that aren't meant to be eaten. (And if that is a sin then let me be damned for it.)
posted by octobersurprise at 8:16 AM on July 12, 2015

I love my books. They aren't there to impress anyone or show off what an erudite or learned person I am, or how good I am at collecting beautiful things. Many of them are in quite bad condition, either because I got them secondhand to begin with or because I have had them that long and read them that many times, lent them to that many people that they show their age just like I do.

My books are my friends. As a teen I had a habit of falling in love with characters in books (so much more reliable than any of the people around me, whose true thoughts and feelings you could never know the way you know people in books) so in a way some of them are my lovers as well. I've wept over books, laughed over them, lost sleep over them, dreamt about them, written continuations or digressions based on them because I couldn't bear for that world to be gone, over, done. I wanted more. I wanted to be part of them sometimes, and there was a stage of very embarrassing Mary Sue-ish stories that thankfully did not survive. I reread my books, and every time I open one of my dear friends or old favourites, there are all those echoes of my past selves, the past times reading them, held in the pages. (One book, I shan't tell you which, actually has translucent brown pressed lilac blossoms between certain of its pages. I added another every time I reread the book for years, and though I no longer reread it annually and don't always add lilac blossoms, I am careful to preserve the ones my former selves left.)

I do have one or two books in multiple versions. I find that the edition I first read is sometimes extremely important - the artwork on the cover or the inside is a critical part of what makes that book so important; the font, the spacing, the way the book feels in my hands. And yet the story is also important. So sometimes I have one copy for reading and another as an artefact. This is the beauty of secondhand stores and why some things must be bought in dead tree format, no matter how convenient or available the digital version is: the form is part of its function.

Because I do also have an ereader (a Kobo, which minimises my ability to get distracted with the internet, and is also easier on the eyes for me than a tablet). I wasn't sure I would bond with it, but I have. I've learnt that the story can catch me up and keep me tapping at the screen as easily as turning pages. It is also much easier to travel with, and to read long books on. I've read some non-fiction on it, but nothing particularly dense. I agree, it's a form much more suited to fiction. And yet still, when I go to buy a new book intentionally (instead of being seduced by a bookstore) I do ask myself if it's one of those books I somehow need to have in hard copy instead of digitally. Sometimes the answer is no (Hilary Mantel, I am looking at you). Sometimes I'm not quite sure (my recent addiction to Fred Vargas was a tough call, but I love Adamsberg and her wry humour so much that I am glad I opted for paper). Others I just know from the beginning, this one is a keeper.

I regularly go through my shelves, see if there are any that, on reflection, I don't actually think I will read again, don't want to hold on to their particular memories and set them free for someone else by donating them to my local little library. It always pleases me to go back to the little library and see the books I left there have gone. (I of course have a selection of things that I have found there, some of which I intend to give back, others of which have been amazing finds and are mine now.) Sometimes I even get rid of books that, although acquired with the best of intentions, I have somehow never gotten around to reading. I can be merciless sometimes: if a book annoys me or irritates me, I no longer feel compelled to keep reading until the end. I think I took the copy of Confederacy of Dunces I bought for book club to the little library rather than putting it in the recycling bin, but it deserved to be burned.

So I don't really understand the author and his aesthetic acquisition of books he will never read in his efforts to impress others. I think a special circle in hell is reserved for his friend Jason. I also don't understand people who don't have books, or at least read them. I am sure they may be perfectly lovely people, I just don't understand their lack of books.

Oh, and sonascope mentioned it already, but for anyone relying on a library to keep that special book you may want to reread someday? Don't. Trust me, I'm a librarian.
posted by Athanassiel at 8:33 AM on July 12, 2015 [3 favorites]

I was quite startled a few years back when I realized a new friend didn't understand what being "a book person" meant: I am the sum total of all that I have read. My personality and opinions are formed by reading (much, but not all of it, fiction).

I started reading compulsively at 3 years old and haven't stopped(slower in my 40s, to my dismay, but still going). My books are my armour, my snail-like shell. Yes, I am very social; no, books aren't always enough. But they are a part of me that I miss when I am away. I feel naked without them, incomplete. Clothes are not sufficient. Books are me.

Everything gets read, almost everything gets re-read, many multiple times. I get book cravings (like you do for certain foods) so it's great to be able to reach for the one I need when I want it. I don't have to rely on technology or worry about decades-long digital availability (that's part of my work, which I like to keep separate from my personal book life). I love traveling and e-book readers are great for trips/luggage weight reduction/commuting etc. They may also be an an answer to the killing-trees problem, but on the other hand, are made of people-exploiting rare minerals and need fossil-fuel derived electricity (until they all go green-solar). So I feel it's a draw there.

I use the library for books I don't think I'll re-read (I'm pretty good at predicting this) and so I don't get buried under the weight of murder mysteries and beach books (yes, I do own some of both).

Same thing with film, to a lesser degree. I only buy movies I know I'll watch repeatedly. I spend lots of money on moving my books when I re-locate, but happy to do so. Books, c'est moi!
posted by mollymillions at 8:53 AM on July 12, 2015 [3 favorites]

So I don't really understand the author and his aesthetic acquisition of books he will never read in his efforts to impress others.

He mentioned being in tenth grade in 2010, which makes him 21 or so at most. That's all you need to know.
posted by MartinWisse at 9:22 AM on July 12, 2015 [2 favorites]

I am disheartened and dismayed by those who have gone the digital route and forsaken hard copy forever. What, do you live in those tiny houses we were all bitching about a few days ago? Long ago I learned that the most perishable medium is digital. Computers crash, hard drives fail, tablets die, e-companies fold. Granted the chance of Amazon going bust is nil but still, it's putting all of your eggs into a single basket. Maybe I'm either too old or too much of a purist to understand slaving yourself to digital, or worse yet, the cloud. I have an iPad and I do a lot of reading on it but I trust Cupertino with my stuff about as well as I trust my Republican governor to place the needs of the people before the oil companies.

I live in a very rural area. There is one library in the entire county and it tends to reflect the tastes of the county population. Lots of best-selling dreck: bodice-rippers, Dan Brown, right-wing military techo fantasies, Danielle Steele, etc. I gave up on it years ago. There are two fancy-shmancy bookcases in the living room for really special hardbacks, another three bookshelves in my office, two bookcases downstairs, and two closets stuffed with paperbacks that have yet to find a home. And that's after purging a good part of our collection in a move five years ago. All e-books, lossless audio files (fuck MP3s), video files, photos are backed up on three hard drives, one of which is kept in a safety deposit box. It may sound paranoid but I've lost enough digital files in one way or another to be cautious.

I wish I had a library I could depend on. I like reading on my iPad because my wife hates bright lights and complains when I've got a bright light on to read a book (though oddly doesn't care when she does it herself). We stream more movies and TV than we watch our dusty DVDs. One of these days I'm going to get a DAC so I can finally feed all those HD audio files and concerts into my stereo system. But none of this digital convenience is going to change my love for opening a real book, watching a film on a big screen, or playing a vinyl record. You digital kids stay off my real lawn.
posted by Ber at 9:37 AM on July 12, 2015 [3 favorites]

Then there was this guy:

When we read, someone else thinks for us; we repeat merely his mental process. It is like the pupil who, when learning to write, goes over with his pen the strokes made in pencil by the teacher. Accordingly, when we read, the work of thinking is for the most part taken away from us. Hence the noticeable relief when from preoccupation with our thoughts we pass to reading. But while we are reading our mind is really only the playground of other people’s ideas; and when these finally depart, what remains? The result is that, whoever reads very much and almost the entire day but at intervals amuses himself with thoughtless pastime, gradually loses the ability to think for himself; just as a man who always rides ultimately forgets how to walk. But such is the case with very many scholars; they have read themselves stupid.

Arthur Schopenhauer
On Reading and Books
<---- That is a .pdf
posted by bukvich at 10:14 AM on July 12, 2015 [4 favorites]

Yeah, Ber, I live in one of those tiny houses, and my laptop connected to the net is my library. Different strokes, etc.
posted by Agave at 10:30 AM on July 12, 2015 [2 favorites]

Long ago I learned that the most perishable medium is digital. Computers crash, hard drives fail, tablets die, e-companies fold. Granted the chance of Amazon going bust is nil but still, it's putting all of your eggs into a single basket.

If we are just talking books you could offsite archive them for nothing on multiple sites because the file sizes are so small. Hard copy? Well, not as easy. When they are lost they are lost.

But also I kind of just don't care if I lose them, I mean, unless I am still in the middle of reading them. There isn't much point in keeping them around to me. But if I ever do want to revisit the joy of a book, I will re-read it. Seeing the spine or the cover doesn't do much for me when you can experience the whole thing in all it's detail any time you want.

I put my beer glass collection on my shelves instead because they offer me a sentimental reminder of things I can't re-experience in full detail like a trip to Estonia with my parents and sister. (Saku Lager)
posted by Drinky Die at 11:36 AM on July 12, 2015 [1 favorite]

In the past couple of months I have started buying paper again. I've started to get into graphic novels and comic volumes. It just makes sense to me to get these in physical form because of the artwork.

The retina iPads are fantastic for comics, and the iBookstore has quite a good selection. Since comics take up more space than novels, it's been a real relief for my shelves. Plus you can get the first few pages as a free preview, which is similar if not identical to being able to riffle through it in the shop to see if you like the look of it before buying.

It does make me feel bad for not buying from the local shop, though, so I always end up down there every few weeks, buying a fancy hardcover out of guilt.
posted by rifflesby at 12:19 PM on July 12, 2015 [1 favorite]

When we read, someone else thinks for us; we repeat merely his mental process
*notes irony of quoting such a sentence; indeed, of writing such a sentence to be read at all*
posted by octobersurprise at 1:31 PM on July 12, 2015

My wife finds it odd that I smell my books while I read and constantly fan them across me. By every book has a different smell, all of them good. Books are much more than what you see.
posted by triage_lazarus at 2:38 PM on July 12, 2015

It is mentioned a little in the Scientific American link above, there is research that indicates our brains can build spatial relationships with physical books that can add to the recall of what we have read. From an article on Nautilus:
The differences between page and screen go beyond the simple tactile pleasures of good paper stock. To the human mind, a sequence of pages bound together into a physical object is very different from a flat screen that displays only a single “page” of information at a time. The physical presence of the printed pages, and the ability to flip back and forth through them, turns out to be important to the mind’s ability to navigate written works, particularly lengthy and complicated ones. We quickly develop a mental map of the contents of a printed text, as if its argument or story were a voyage unfolding through space. If you’ve ever picked up a book that you read long ago and discovered that your hands were able to locate a particular passage quickly, you’ve experienced this phenomenon. When we hold a physical publication in our hands, we also hold its contents in our mind.

The spatial memories seem to translate into more immersive reading and stronger comprehension. A recent experiment conducted with young readers in Norway found that, with both expository and narrative works, people who read from a printed page understand a text better than those who read the same material on a screen. The findings are consistent with a series of other studies on the process of reading. “We know from empirical and theoretical research that having a good spatial mental representation of the physical layout of the text supports reading comprehension,” wrote the Norwegian researchers. They suggested that the ability of print readers to “see as well as tactilely feel the spatial extension and physical dimensions” of an entire text likely played a role in their superior comprehension.
Most of the books I own, I have read or plan to read. I do like print books, and the having of them, although I can't say that I ever have tried to display them for others. I want them because I read them and enjoyed them enough to think I will re-read them one day, or because they seem interesting enough that I will read them for the first time one day. I have only a few old, special edition type books. I do have some old engineering reference books of my grandfather's that I may never read or use, but I want to have them and pass them on one day. I also read Kindle books on my phone, so I am not opposed to digital, they work especially well when I am travelling. I think that likely the books that I read and enjoyed digitally, I will likely buy paper copies to have and re-read one day.
posted by HycoSpeed at 3:07 PM on July 12, 2015 [1 favorite]

This is the first acknowledgement I think I've ever come across that book-buying is a form of materialism.

I can't find the comment now, but I distinctly recall reading someone saying that 'Amazon was their bookshelf', and when viewed in a certain light, Amazon pays you to store your books, etc. There is a certain kind of materialistic irony about deliberately not possessing things.

One which I mostly adhere to. But I also use the library, and every once in a while I ponder what API I'd need to turn the public library into a local NetFlix.
posted by pwnguin at 3:21 PM on July 12, 2015

"Why would you read a book more than once?"

Factual response: because I don't have eidetic memory, so after a year, I won't remember everything that was in it.

Spiritual response: Reading certain beloved books is akin to a meditative experience, in that they put me into a state of peacefulness or awareness that I greatly enjoy.

Counter-question: why do you listen to a song, or look at a painting, or see a movie or a play more than once?

Snarky rejoinder: if all your books can be totally understood and sucked dry of pleasure and nuance on one reading, then you are reading some shit books, my friend. Get some better ones.

Digital is great for disposable things; magazine articles, quickie reads, book club selections, books that I am not certain I will like. But trust the books I love most to it? Hell no. They are in stable paper form where I can access them any time, without ever having to worry about battery life, power sources, or software updates.

I am not particularly in love with specific paper forms; dust covers mostly get removed while I'm reading, and I will only buy new versions if the old one falls apart completely. It's the words themselves that work for me, not the wrapping.

And the reason I dislike people who don't keep books in their house is that it seems so inhospitable. What if I didn't bring anything with me to read? Are you going to just let me sit here and suffer after the small talk is used up? My siblings are the worst about this. Not a reader in the bunch, not even an e-reader. Their houses are a barren desert I wander into sadly, bereft of anything more interesting to gaze at than sports on TV.
posted by emjaybee at 3:56 PM on July 12, 2015 [7 favorites]

I like the aesthetic of books very much, and I like them as something to look at and experience as a physical object at times as much as I like to read them. But I have a lot of books I haven't read, and think the overlap for that reason is shared somewhere in my psyche with that same part of me that has waaaay more Steam games than I could probably play in the next few years. In great part, it's collecting something I like as much as it is in indulging in something for means of its primary purpose. It's like taking joy in collecting coins, perhaps, even though I'll never spend it as money.
posted by SpacemanStix at 5:12 PM on July 12, 2015 [1 favorite]

There are very few books in my house, and I can't remember the last time I actually bought a book.

Go ahead, look down your noses at me. I'll just keep going to my library and taking advantage of their excellent ebook and print selection, and using my discretionary income to fund my other hobbies.
posted by Lucinda at 7:23 PM on July 12, 2015 [1 favorite]

I'll just keep going to my library and taking advantage of their excellent ebook and print selection, and using my discretionary income to fund my other hobbies.

Going to the library is one of the best feelings ever. I get warm fuzzies that are directly connected to my early childhood experiences. Totally compatible with loving books for whatever reason.
posted by SpacemanStix at 8:02 PM on July 12, 2015 [1 favorite]

That's a preferable life for a book, in my opinion, to sitting on one of my shelves at home, gathering dust and under appreciated.

I got rid of hundreds/a few thousand books when I downsized several years ago in preparation for moving. In the process I came to think that it just wasn't right to keep shelves full of books that I've already read (or would never read)--that it was akin to keeping a pantry full of more food than I could eat while others went hungry. And putting them on display as if they were a decorating statement seemed a little crass.

These days I usually have a couple of dozen books lying around, including several kept for sentimental reasons, favorites that get re-read, and a few copies of my favorite 2 novels to press upon people who haven't read them. All other books are just passing through.
posted by she's not there at 8:33 PM on July 12, 2015

Does it bother anyone else that the books in the picture are arranged by color?

Makes me suspect that any art in the room was chosen to match the sofa.
posted by she's not there at 8:46 PM on July 12, 2015 [1 favorite]

every book has a different smell, all of them good.

Occassionally cat pee.
posted by MartinWisse at 9:37 PM on July 12, 2015 [2 favorites]

Does it bother anyone else that the books in the picture are arranged by color?


Surely you have your orange Penguins and yellow DAWs and green Penguins also arranged by colour, right?
posted by MartinWisse at 9:39 PM on July 12, 2015

every book has a different smell, all of them good.

Occassionally cat pee.

Or dust bunny.
posted by Drinky Die at 10:17 PM on July 12, 2015

I have some physical books, and prefer them for any kind of reading--fiction or nonfiction--that requires frequent flipping around to maps, tables, references, etc. Otherwise I have gone digital. My Kindle Paperwhite (and Nook before that; just as good) is awesome. I have scores of books that I have yet to read still on my Kindle, so the collector phenomenon isn't limited to physical books. It's a binge thing. I find books via certain...sources online and go hogwild sometimes. It's all right there! I have even more books on my desktop hard drive that I've yet to upload to the Kindle.

I have about 100 books on my Kindle, and that's barely 10% or so of the gig of memory on the thing? You know how small epub and mobi files are? A fraction of a megabite. You can easily fit a lifetime's worth of books on a Kindle, even if you're a speedreading freak.

Having said all that...I love perusing bookstores, new and used, to look for additions to the collection. It's a lifestyle.
posted by zardoz at 5:38 AM on July 13, 2015

I did have a real retention problem on my kindle at first, but as I read more on it, my retention has gone up markedly, as I guess my brain has started learning tricks similar to those it already uses on printed books. There is definitely a difference -- I do miss the physical memory of "I read a really great passage in THIS place in the book" -- and I'd be uneasy reading an intro, survey textbook sort of thing (even without illustrations) on the kindle for fear I wouldn't retain enough. But after about 3 1/2 years with my kindle, my retention with the e-reader is way up. I notice that I "highlight" a lot more, which I think helps me retain, as highlighting on the kindle doesn't permanently mark up the book, and is frictionless to get rid of if I decide it's dumb later on. I don't know what else my brain is doing, but I do notice I can remember where on the SCREEN I read something!

I do stop to think, when I buy a book, do I need this in hardback 1) because I need the maps and illustrations? 2) because I need to mark it up in the traditional way to get the most out of it? 3) because I want to be able to pull off the shelf and reference frequently, in a way that is easier to do with a physical book than using the search function on the kindle? or 4) because I want it to be child bait*? If none of those things, I typically get it on my kindle, because the ABSURD CONVENIENCE of carrying around hundreds of books in my purse everywhere I go, never losing my place, being able to switch books if I'm not in the mood for the one I'm reading, being able to read in the dark ... well, it's absurdly convenient, especially as I get into the age where I have to sit at my kids' activities and wait for them, but I don't have to participate in any way.

*"Child Bait" is a category of books that are adult books that you keep on the eye-level shelves that are weird or magical or interesting and the sort of thing that tempts children to pull them off the shelf, flip a few pages, and be like, "Wait, what? Wait, I gotta keep reading this." and shows them a wider, weirder world. These range from art books to surgeon's anatomies to really pretty editions of Plato to world scriptures to local history to the complete works of Poe ... just all kinds of things that I think would lure a child.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 8:14 AM on July 13, 2015 [1 favorite]

most books could be replaced or downloaded if someone really needed to reread The Corrections or Infinite Jest for whatever reason

No no no no no. If I need a book instantaneously, I probably have to pay retail. 9.99, or 15.99, or some other number that seems obscene to me.

But there is nothing like finding an out of print book that I've been seeking for YEARS for 10 cents at a library cull sale. NOTHING. And getting rid of that book would be a desecration of the magical kismet-filled moment when I found such a book wedged between a Paul Reiser book and a book on the Atkins diet.

I have never had the chance to run through a field of gently swaying, fragrant grasses to leap into the arms of a beloved. But I have felt the same way on spotting a familiar spine across a table heaped with scattered Da Vinci Codes and Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venuses. Oh, there you are, sweetheart.

I also get a special pleasure out of adding expensive books to my Amazon reading list, and then purchasing them for a fiftieth of their market value.
posted by a fiendish thingy at 11:38 AM on July 13, 2015 [4 favorites]

I don't physically get the opportunity to hold one for any length of time. so, why do I have so many books?
Riding mass transit is my personal favorite time to read.
posted by soelo at 11:49 AM on July 13, 2015

I've never hoarded books I haven't read, mainly because I grew up in a country where English-language books cost a fortune (and have lived in another for many years). Teenaged me would have been in heaven with an e-reader. I read an average of 15 books while on holiday - the last time I tried doing that with physical books I owed Ryanair a fortune.

To me, physical books are lovely but the true enjoyment of reading comes from the art on the page, whether on paper or screen. When you're a bookworm who has lived in several places where English-language books are an expensive rarity, you appreciate the sheer joy and freedom of having an e-reader and being able to download a book wherever you may be. I never take it for granted.
posted by NixonNixonNixonNixon at 12:28 PM on July 13, 2015 [1 favorite]

NixonNixonNixonNixon: "When you're a bookworm who has lived in several places where English-language books are an expensive rarity, you appreciate the sheer joy and freedom of having an e-reader and being able to download a book wherever you may be."

I've mentioned this before, but my BFF's husband is Norwegian and he loves and adores his kindle. He got it because he's gadgety and thought it was a cool gadget, but he very quickly found that he was suddenly reading tons more English-language fiction -- because while his everyday conversational and profession-specific English was quiet fluent (he's been in the US 9 or 10 years now, I think), idiomatic or literary language often required him to stop and look up words, which took forever with a paper book and was obviously impossible on the train. Now he POKES THE WORD and THE KINDLE INSTANTLY DEFINES IT IN ENGLISH AND NORWEGIAN. Similarly, there are a lot of cultural references he would miss -- to US history or other people's post-war childhoods in the US or Jim Crow -- and as long as he's on WiFi, he can poke it and go to Wikipedia and be like, "OHHHHHHH Gerald Ford, okay, I get it." So now he can read a lot faster and more confidently and from a much wider variety of genres, and he's been really pleased with the world of English-language fiction now that it's suddenly so much more accessible.

Of course it's also a continuing delight to him to be able to pick up the latest Norwegian bestsellers and buzzy books without having to wait for his mom to drag them all across the Atlantic in a suitcase, because boy are there not a lot of bookstores in the US with a Norwegian section!

I took my cue from him and I've been reading Spanish children's books to improve my Spanish, and he's right, you can go so much faster when you can just poke words you don't know! It's much less frustrating than stopping every two paragraphs to look something up in the dictionary!
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 1:46 PM on July 13, 2015 [7 favorites]

After getting an ereader, my general project of reducing my library greatly accelerated to the point where it was a couple of shelves in a Billy bookshelf. What I did buy in dead tree format were art books and really big comic books - ie books for which there were great benefits to the actual format. But I am worried now that my kids will see that while they have their own bookshelves filled with lots of different books mine are mostly picture books and not realize that I love to read as well as look at pretty pictures.

In a year's time I'll be in a living situation where there will be lots of space for books and that is when I will really have to evaluate what I'm going to be doing. I doubt I will do all paper or ebook, there will be a mix, but it will be hard to figure out what the mix will be.
posted by any portmanteau in a storm at 1:53 PM on July 13, 2015

I am up to 450 art books and as you can imagine they take up a serious amount of space. Can I ever get rid of them? Who knows, maybe one day I'll try storing them all and see if I can get that feeling of ambrosia from all of the extra room?
There is a great sense of aesthetic satisfaction sweeping over a dense shelf of monographs knowing that all of those art works are available for perusal. But moreso than that, it is a little piece of that artists. Could I get by on purely digital artbooks? I am awaiting a tipping point in that regard.
I have done the same with my VHS, DVD, CD and DVD collections, now it is just the art books remaining. The specific physicality of the medium itself is hard to let go of.
posted by Theta States at 2:33 PM on July 13, 2015

Being able to look things up on Google Images or Wikipedia with a long press has been wonderful for actually knowing things instead of just feeling like I kind of do. It was fun for a while always being like "oh yeah that's some kind of some kind of flower/hat/architectural feature they have in the desert/India/churches, probably" but I do not miss it.
posted by two or three cars parked under the stars at 6:33 PM on July 13, 2015

I wanted to say that another reason I collect art books is that the internet is still terrible for art. It is a real hodgepodge of what you can see, resolutions, photograph quality, and interface.
Some stuff is on Google Art Project, some stuff on Artsy, some stuff in various articles, etc, but you never really know. At least with a good monograph you can have a solid representation of that artist's work ready to pull up.
And there are so many reason why it is this way, but I am hopeful some thing will change and I can one day have all my art online. Some publishers have even been experimenting with digital releases, but until I have a high res 12" tablet, I won't have much interest in those.

So in the meantime I can glance the spines and know the vast array of artists I can peruse on a whim. And of course there is a pride in the personal curation of it all, but that part diminishes in relation to the amount of people who actually come over.
posted by Theta States at 7:10 AM on July 14, 2015 [2 favorites]

I am disheartened and dismayed by those who have gone the digital route and forsaken hard copy forever. What, do you live in those tiny houses we were all bitching about a few days ago?

I guess I think that, if something catastrophic happened tomorrow and I suddenly lost all of the books that I owned, I'd be a little bummed but I'd be okay. There are few possessions of mine that, if lost, I'd feel devastated. Losing all of my books would make me more upset than losing, say, all of my shoes, but I'd be a lot sadder if I somehow lost all of my photos. I thought I had lost my wedding ring recently and that made me sad to think about. But it's all just stuff. Some stuff is more meaningful than other stuff but it's just stuff. Now stop staring at my Tim Russert autographed copy of Big Russ and Me - you can't have it.
posted by kat518 at 1:35 PM on July 14, 2015

PS: I found that Routledge History of Madness today at a used bookstore and snapped it up. It is indeed very hefty and red.
posted by mittens at 6:51 PM on July 25, 2015

« Older no idea how these people got toupees wedged onto...   |   “If you get pregnant here, you are stuck” Newer »

This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments